However readers of the present lines first read or heard the news on August 2, the report included the words. “Pope Changes Church Teaching”. The full headline in the Washington Post was, “Pope Francis changes Catholic Church teaching to say death penalty is ‘inadmissible.’”
Questions leapt to the mind of all of us however we learned the news. By “all of us” I mean seriously practicing Catholics of traditional bent.
Obviously teaching can be obscured or ignored. In fact, I’m writing a book about teachings that are now effectively forgotten, ones that would have important political and social consequences were they still taught. How many Catholics realize, for instance, that the Church has condemned as evil the lending or borrowing of money at interest – any amount of interest?
Of course friends of Saint Benedict Center, if not casual visitors to the website, are keenly aware of the obscurity into which the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus has fallen.
It remains, obscuring or ignoring a teaching, even if done methodically, is one thing. Changing it is something else. Is it even possible? Clearly not when the teaching is de fide, something a Catholic must believe in order to be Catholic, which belief we affirm when we recite the Creed at Mass. However, most of what the Church teaches is not de fide definita. For instance, it is not defined ex cathedra to believe that life begins at the moment of conception or that marriage is possible only between a man and a woman and is indissoluble. These are, however, de fide catholica because they are truths clearly taught in holy scripture and/or are part of the universal ordinary teaching of the Catholic Church.
Can a pope, then, by himself, change Church teaching that is not defined ex cathedra? How might he do that? Simply by rewriting a passage of a catechetical work, Catechism of the Catholic Church, as is the case with the purported change of the teaching on capital punishment? (The Catechism formerly stated that capital punishment was “acceptable.” Pope Francis’ rewrite says it is “inadmissible.”)
If the execution of a convicted criminal is always “inadmissible,” doesn’t that amount to saying that the right to life is absolute? Is there, then, no difference between an innocent preborn baby and an admitted serial killer? Are we to forget society’s right to punish criminals according to the gravity of their crime and only remember our hope that punishment of some kind will assist their rehabilitation? The new catechetical language says that it is according to an “an increasing awareness” that the execution of convicted murderers is now “inadmissible”. Well, whose “increasing awareness”? The 54% of Americans who approve capital punishment, according to polls? It was Pope Benedict XVI, Francis’ immediate predecessor and only professional theologian ever to be pope, who agreed capital punishment was “acceptable”?
What about all the popes, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, great saints, theologians and philosophers who have found capital punishment “acceptable” for two thousand years? If their “awareness” was so limited on account of their living before the modern age that they were wrong on this question, are we to be sure they got everything else right? How is it possible for men to be so much wiser and learned — so much more “aware” — in modern secularized liberal society than they were when Christendom existed? There’s been progress? The “progress” of a 50% divorce rate, same-sex “marriage” and millions killed by legal abortion?
I have cited them before on this website and elsewhere, but some words of the great nineteenth-century Spanish Catholic political thinker Juan Donoso Cortes merit quotation again. His subject is capital punishment.
“Governments seem to be endowed with an unerring instinct that teaches them they can only be just or strong in the name of God. Thus it happens that whenever they commence to secularize, that is to say, separate themselves from God, they always begin to relax the severity of penalties, as if conscious that their right has weakened. The loose modern theories regarding criminal law are contemporaneous with the decadence of religion, and they have prevailed in the code wherever the complete secularization of political power was established….
“Those who would have the world believe that this earth can be converted into a paradise, have not more readily made it believe it ought to be a paradise where blood is never shed. The end is not in the illusion, but in the very day and hour that this fallacy is everywhere accepted; blood will then gush from the rocks and the earth will become a hell. Man cannot aspire to an impossible felicity in this obscure valley of our dark passage without losing the little happiness he already possesses.”
In light of the proclaimed change of Church teaching on the death penalty, I should like to offer a humble suggestion to publishers of Catechism of the Catholic Church. Change the title to Catechism of the Catholic Church for the Time Being and bring it out as a loose-leaf binder.